I recognise that not everyone is willing or able, or even needs, to get a professionally designed website. There are more and more free, or low-cost options available that can be used to get a basic website up and running. Some can get you a quite passable website, while others can actually have a negative impact on your business. With some you will be able to fairly easily move on to a custom website or add features as your business grows, while with others you may find yourself having to start all over again from scratch.
I like to see people get the very best website they can for their available budget, so I’ve decided to start a series of reviews of the various free or low cost website builders, to enable make your choice with your eyes open. This is the first of that series.
A Review of the MYOB Atlas Getting Businesses Online offer
Lately I’ve noticed a lot of small businesses signing up for websites with the MYOB Atlas free website builder. Offering a free website for one year ($5-$15 per month thereafter), a free “.com.au” domain name for two years, a number of layouts, integration with Google and social media, and an e-commerce store, it sounds too good to be true. So I thought I’d run through the process of setting up a website using this service, to see what all the fuss was about.
MYOB make great accounting software, but getting them to build you a website for free might be a bit like asking your web designer to do your accounts for free. She can probably do the basics and add up a few figures for you, but she doesn’t know the complexity of tax department regulations. At best she’d probably lose you some money, and at worst she could get you into trouble and do some actual damage to your business and reputation.
Would you want to take that risk with your business? Read on to decide.
MYOB Atlas websites are fairly quick and easy to set up, and a workable basic e-commerce solution, but frustrating and limited to update, and have usability and privacy issues for your site visitors. Worst of all, they are not search engine optimised, and it’s easy to believe that Google’s main motive for this initiative is to sell more Google Adwords.
- Domain name registration quick and easy, and you have complete control of the domain name.
- Easy to get the absolute basics up and running.
- A number of simple layouts available in five colour schemes. (But after the first year, the $5 plan only gives you access to the most unattractive default design. You have to pay a higher monthly fee to retain your chosen colour scheme.)
- Easy to manage photo gallery.
- E-commerce is relatively simple to set up and seems to work well for a small scale business.
- Ongoing adding of content is cumbersome and very limited in scope. Most businesses will very quickly outgrow this site.
- Very poor search engine optimisation, despite claims of being “partnered with Google”. You will have a tough time ranking well in Google using this site builder.
- Contact form is difficult to use, which may deter customers from contacting you.
- Newsletter signup process exposes you to the risk of being seen as a spammer.
Read on for detailed analysis.
Domain Name – Good
- The domain is registered in my own name.
- I am free to transfer it to another registrar in the future if I no longer want to continue the MYOB service.
Sometimes cheap or free website services that register your domain name for you will actually register it in their own name instead of yours. This makes it very difficult to later move your site elsewhere, as you don’t really own the domain name. The MYOB Atlas service, fortunately, is not one of these, and the simple process had my domain name registered in a few minutes, and the website already live on that domain.
NOTE: If you have previously signed up for a website through a company that registered your domain name for you, and you are not sure if they registered it in your name or theirs, you can check the registrant by doing a Who Is search:
For Australian domains: http://www.whois.com.au/whois/index.html
For international domains: http://betterwhois.com/
Ease of Setup – OK
As advertised, you can have a website online in 15 minutes, but if you want a good website, there’s a significant learning curve which you need to make time for. If not, your website may create a poor impression and do more harm than good
Basic initial setup was fairly quick and simple. It takes you through in a step by step process:
- Register the domain name
- Choose a theme
- Upload your logo and banner image.
- Add your content.
They do give you a lot of links to further information, which, if you take the time to read them, will give you a lot of useful tips on ways to get the most out of your website. This is possibly an overwhelming amount of information for a beginner, but it gives you an idea of the depth of knowledge that is really required to build a good website.
Ease of Updating – Frustrating
Once I got the basics set up, it started getting harder.
- Arrangement of information was not very intuitive – I sometimes found myself going round in circles trying to find what I wanted to do.
- Lag in getting changes to display – sometimes it was a good 5 minutes before the change would appear on the site. This made the process harder than necessary, as I was finding myself constantly wondering if I’d done something wrong.
- Limited number of pages
- Home page – brief description up to 1,000 characters. But I kept getting a message saying “Please shorten this text to 1000 characters or less. You are currently using 999 characters.” – Huh? 999 was less than 1000 when I went to school!
- Easy to upload photos.
- Photos can be sorted into categories.
- There is no way to edit image thumbnails, so the important part of an image may be cropped out in the thumbnail
- There is no way to change the order of photos.
- News – You can enter longer information here, up to 10,000 characters per news item. But this is not set up as a blog or news feed, so there is no way for people to subscribe to your news feed.
Search Engine Optimisation – Bad
This is possibly the most dangerous aspect of this free service. With the service being promoted as being “in partnership with Google”, it’s easy to think that you are getting a website that is search engine optimised. It’s not.
Search engine optimisation is a complex field, and without proper advice you may be wasting time and money on a scattergun approach to marketing, rather than focussing where it will do the most good.
There is no magic bullet. You still need to do the hard work to maintain your rankings, and this website builder does not give you sufficient tools to do this.
What it does give you:
- Google Analytics integration – An easy way to insert the code required for you to see the statistics of who is visiting your page. Note that this does not help people find your page, it just lets you see information about them once they’ve got there.
- A link to get your website on Google Places for free (it’s always free).
- A voucher for $75 for Google Adwords pay-per-click advertising. Many hosts and domain registrars offer these as standard when you sign up, so you would most likely get this wherever your site is.) $75 of pay-per-click advertising is used up very quickly, after which you will be spending your own money. Costs can add up very quickly with pay per click advertising, and there is potential to waste a lot of money if not well targetted.
What it doesn’t give you:
- Adequate tools for controlling the meta tags information on your site. The “title” and “description” tags are an important part of optimising your site. This sitebuilder gives you limited control of your title tags, and no way to control the description tag.
- Any way of structuring your content meaningfully with headings.
- Knowledge and experience of search engine optimisation techniques.
The main winner in this area is Google itself. Without adequate SEO tools, you are going to have a hard time getting traffic to your site without paid advertising. Which means more revenue for Google when your $75 adwords coupon is used up. (Thanks to Gail from successful-therapist.com for this insight.)
See my previous post on Search Engine Optimisation for more information on SEO.
Email List Signup – Bad
If not used with great care, the newsletter signup feature on these websites exposes you to significant danger of being blacklisted for sending spam.
Continuing to send emails to people who have asked to be unsubscribed is illegal under Australian privacy laws, and this system does not have enough safeguards to help you comply with the law.
The process works like this:
- Customer signs up on your website (or somebody else signs them up – there is no safeguard against people being subscribed without consent.)
- You download a list of people who have signed up, and import that into your email programme.
- You send emails directly from your email programme, and must remember to use “BCC” so as not to reveal everyone’s email address.
- There is no way for people to unsubscribe automatically. They must send you an email asking to be unsubscribed, and you must remove them from the list manually.
- There is no way to remove them from the list of people you download from the site, so even if you manually remove them from your list, they will be back in the list next time you download it.
Email lists are best managed using a service that is designed for that purpose, such as MailChimp or Constant Contact. A web professional can integrate one of these services into a properly built website for you.
If building a list of email subscribers is an important part of your business, I would strongly recommend you not use the MYOB service.
Social Media Integration – OK
The package includes basic tools for integrating your web presence with social media, and they seem to work as expected.
Remember that this won’t magically “do” social media for you. You still have to devise, implement and maintain an online strategy.
Setting this option up just because you can, and then leaving your social media pages to languish with no updates will reflect very poorly on your business and do more damage than good.
What you get:
- A link to your social media page.
- Buttons for site visitors to like and share your pages.
- The option to automatically share news items on your social media page.
NOTE: For this to work, you have to give the MYOB app access to your Facebook profile. It’s up to you whether you want to do this or not.
E-Commerce – Fair
NOTE: After the first year, e-commerce is not included in the $5 per month plan. You need to pay at least $10 per month to continue using this service.
This section is pretty simple to set up and is a workable solution for a very small-scale business. You will need a business PayPal account, but once you have that, it’s a simple matter to link it to your site.
What you get:
- Photo gallery of products with description and price.
- Shipping rate settings – fixed rate per item or variable rate.
- Shopping cart automatically calculates postage according to your settings.
- Customer is redirected to Paypal page to make payment, and then back to your website to confirm.
What you don’t get:
- Inventory control. If you need a system that can keep track of how many items you have in stock, you will need a more sophisticated e-commerce system than this one.
Front End – Look- Fair
NOTE: After the first year, the choice of colours and themes is not available on the $5 per month plan. To use any but the most basic (and rather unattractive) layout, you will be up for $15 per month after the first year.
There are four very basic layouts available in five different colour schemes. None of them are particularly polished or dazzling, but they are simple, functional designs. Your website definitely won’t stand out from the crowd with these templates, but I’ve seen worse.
Front End – Usability and Accessibility – Poor
The website has a number of usability and accessibility problems, which would prevent some users from accessing or navigating your site, and discourage many users from contacting you.
- The contact form is very difficult to use, with a very small non-expandable box to write your message, and a limit of 800 characters. It is extremely frustrating trying to type more than a sentence or two in the tiny box. Usability issues on this contact form are severe enough that it would be very likely to deter customers from contacting you.
- Display of links is inconsistent. On the colour scheme I chose, some some links are white, and turn blue on hover, some are blue and stay blue with an underline on hover, some don’t change at all on hover, and some blue headings are not links at all.
- Some thumbnail images do not have ‘alt’ text, so vision-impaired users would only encounter a link, with no explanation what it is for.
- Keyboard navigation is very difficult, as there is no way to tell where you are on the page.
Front End – Mobile Friendliness – Fair
A nod has been made to the smartphone market, with a very basic version of the site displayed if you visit the site with a mobile device. This does not use your chosen colour scheme, and shows only the details most needed on the move:
- Contact information
- Google Map
To access any other information on the site you will be directed to the standard site, which is usable, but cumbersome.
So, make up your own mind, but if you decide to take up this MYOB offer, go into it with your eyes open, and see it as a temporary measure only. As with most things in life, with websites you get what you pay for. Your website is your business’s public face to the world. As such, it needs an investment of both time and money if you want it to best represent your business.